There I am at the open mic. I’ve recently tried taking on a dream of mine: standup comedy. And right now I’m about two months into this whole thing, and I’m finally starting to have fun, finally starting to feel like I can do this without a constant dread of bombing horribly. Like I’m figuring it out.
It’s the first time I ever went first, and it happens to also be the first day I’ve gotten up when there are actually a good group of people there as “audience members” as opposed to just being other comics.
(That’s how it is in New York City, there are just so many good comedy venues that us folks starting out have to joke at ourselves before we can ever experience a real crowd).
I’m feeling buzzed because I got that audience to laugh really hard, because I threw myself into it, and used my best jokes, and they all laughed and laughed, and I was first, which is the riskiest position, and if I’m being honest it was also because it was mainly a group of old black ladies, which is apparently the demographic with the best laugh on earth.
I have this feeling as I’m watching some of the other comics who may or may not have had experience with real crowds that we’re all kind of feeling like this is special, and we all really want to experience it, bask in it. But that there’s also something deeper happening here.
The room rolls on, and the people laugh harder and harder. Of course, there are some comics that don’t hit, but at an open mic no one cares, and we’re really all having a good time.
I think, can it get better?
It’s at this point I should take a timeout. Let me explain something to you about me: this is, this whole thing, a big scary mess to me. What am I doing? I’m almost 32. Most comics that I’ve heard of that became successful later in life started in their twenties. Am I going to die before I ever become good at this?
And then there’s the other stuff, like… why am I doing this and writing less? Is this some sort of pre-midlife crisis?
Ironically, and this is the way my brain works, there’s a part of me that sees trying new forms of art as laziness.
There is this voice, you see, and it’s become embodied in others these days. It’s the voice of the inner critic. The one that doubts and scans and slows us down.
The Critic is good for some things, like stopping us from doing a striptease on the subway because we’re enjoying the music we’re listening to so much.
But when it comes to pushing beyond our limits, into worlds and lives we only imagined for ourselves once-upon-a-time, well, the Critic is a coward that tries to come off as a genius. The boisterous Donald Trump of your brain saying, “Who do you think you are?! You’re nothing! Just play it safe… or you’ll be embarrassed. And there isn’t anything worse than that, right?”
The Donald Trump of my brain tends to get more boisterous and get more attention, just like the real-life one, when things get a bit hairy in my life. When I’m stressed or scared. Or when I’m trying new things or pushing myself to new heights.
Like right now. Like in that comedy club. When everything seems great and wonderful.
So all those thoughts about being too old, or questioning my refocusing my writing time, or seeing growth as a form of laziness… these are that voice worming its sneaky way into my brain. It sees life as a subway, and every risk as a striptease.
All of this to say that when you read my experience, you’re looking at my consciousness, but not my subconscious. Deep down, deep inside, there is another voice always working, always talking, always scheming to bring down the big fall.
Back to the story.
Can it get any better?
That’s when an old lady gets up. She looks to be in her eighties or so, and I notice the other comics seem to cheer extra hard for her, like they know her.
She gets up and immediately says a joke about being old that quickly takes a rather… blue turn.
The old black ladies cheer and fall into hysterics and the whole room erupts.
She talks about how she got into this just a few years ago, but she thinks she’s pretty good at it, and the whole room agrees. She’s rattling jokes off faster than I can keep up, just bam bam bam, and the room erupts over and over again in response, and the old ladies are cheering, and the old lady is just smiling like she knew this would happen.
She’s got that very New York old Italian lady demeanor, but with a twist of total inappropriate joking, and she seems so relaxed. That’s what strikes me, that’s what starts to hit that Donald Trump idiot voice inside of me, to suddenly quiet him.
Because I see this old lady and it’s not just that she’s funny, it’s that there’s something immediately obvious in her demeanor that suggests she is not overcome with the silly anxieties most of us who get on stage are. She doesn’t care if she’s too old, she embraces it. She’s not showing any anxiety about success, she’s clearly just having a blast in the moment. The fear-monger in her has been quieted, stilled, and her creative, alive side is dancing on stage, free.
She gets off stage, and the room is just electric, affected by her lack of fear, her calm, and we all clap, not the kind of clap that you give to a fellow comic, but the kind you give when you’ve seen a really good show.
I think, can it get better?
That’s when the host gets up and tells us we’re really going to enjoy the next act, and to please give her a big hand, lots of encouragement, and I wonder why he’s saying it like this.
And then this… tiny person… gets on stage. At first I think this is a person with a disease or something, dwarfism or whatever. But her first line begins with, “So I’m twelve years old…” and is followed by some punch line that sends the room into hysterics again.
And as she stands up there less confident than the old lady, but more confident than any twelve year old in front of a bunch of millennials who are drinking and telling dirty jokes in a bar should feel. She plays on her age a lot, but she doesn’t do it as a gimmick, she’s being who she is, and I can’t tell you how inspired I was seeing her.
The old black ladies are cheering again and you can see are almost maternally caring for her success, with this sort of loving cheering. This girl is genuinely funny, though, and making us all do belly laughs. None of which is normal, I promise you, for a New York City comedy open mic, audience or not.
When she gets off stage it’s like a bomb went off and we’re cheering for her and excited for her, and I see her go and sit next to her dad who apparently brings her to these things, and I am suddenly reminded why this city is special and why I’m doing this.
How many people get to spend time in front of others making them laugh, whether for money or just because they’re moved to try this thing out?
How many people even have the courage to try it?
It’s this bizarre thing with art, with self-expression, that so often people like me spend a lot of time tortured by our inner critic, who mocks us, and warns us about our impending doom in the project we’re trying, as if there even is some kind of doom that could come from trying something, working on something that gives us joy and inspires passion.
In other words, we have this gift, us artists. No matter at what level of “success.” The gift is that just doing it is this incredible thing… this incomparable thing.
And for me, seeing the old lady and the young girl perform on stage helped remind me of that. Helped shatter the illusion of terror that the Critic keeps trying to instill in me.
Because ultimately, that’s what the Critic’s voice is doing: creating an illusion. The pain that we think will come with failure is one that literally only exists in our imaginations, one that is never nearly what it turns out to be when failure inevitably comes.
But an old lady killing it with dirty jokes, a young girl supported by her father as she kills it, the electricity in the room that night, the group of ladies who cheered and supported everyone genuinely, the fact that everyone had such a good time… that was all real.
And in the end, if you had to choose between imaginary pain and real joy… it wouldn’t really be a choice, would it?
Well, next time the Critic speaks up in your head, know that this is the exact choice laid before you.